August 5, 2018

Meanwhile, Back in Albany (v19)

Nathaniel Brooks/NY Times photo
People of a certain age will remember the old saying, "if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you," a tip of the hat to America's Greatest Conman, George C Parker. If you don't know George, he was the guy that 'sold' the Brooklyn Bridge to newcomers to the Big Apple back in the day; he also reportedly sold Grant's Tomb.

Our con men aren't as sneaky as Parker -  they do this stuff right under our noses, by taking advantage of poorly written laws and also by taking advantage of the people we elect to the New York State legislature.

One example of this - abuses of the condominium tax break - recently re-surfaced thanks to reporting by Michelle Breidenbach. In her article for the Post-Standard and Syracuse.com, we learn of two single-family homes on the same street in one of the wealthy eastern suburbs of Syracuse. The houses were purchased for the same price, are a quarter-mile apart, and one pays almost double the property taxes of the other. The lower-taxed house is a condominium under the carefully manipulated laws of New York.

A condominium, you say? Isn't that a bunch of connected units, like an apartment building? Yes, that's what most people think a condo is. But a condo is not a condo any more - at least, not according to the law.

From Breidenbach's article:
Savvy builders across New York are taking advance of a loophole in state law that allows all kinds of homes to be called condominiums. That requires them to be assessed at a lower value than traditional single-family homes.
More than 100,000 condos in upstate New York are cashing in on the tactic. Their owners are taking an average 36% discount on their assessments, according to a Syracuse.com analysis of thousands of assessment and sales records. 
Upstate condo owners avoid at least $330 million a year in property taxes, leaving their neighbors to pick up the slack to pay for schools and local government. 
Yep - at least $330,000,000 in property taxes that are not collected, all because some lawyers and builders figured out a way to screw their neighbors - completely legally.  Again, from the article:
This strategy has spread around the state to wherever builders know the trick -- from the Buffalo suburbs to the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County. Yes, that Trump. 
The condo break has almost no public benefit. Yet it goes mostly unnoticed by neighbors, unchallenged in Albany and ridiculed by town assessors who struggle to administer it.  
Under the law, which was created half a century ago - back in the 1960s - to protect folks who lived in NYC apartments when their buildings went condo. The law says that a condo unit - including summer homes, ski lodges, and yes, single family homes - are to be assessed based on how much owners of these 'units' can make in rental income, rather than on the value if the 'condo' was to be sold.

Clearly, the average person can see that what's happening here in the Syracuse suburbs, on Trump's golf course, and across the state is both wrong and unfair.

Meanwhile, back in Albany, no one involved in the crafting of the legislation probably ever figured that it would be so abused; they probably never thought that anyone outside NYC would have paid any attention to the law, much less used it to such in such a detrimental fashion to the rest of us.  But, that's what always happens, isn't it?

We have a long history of laws that turn into private welfare systems for the wealthy and for corporations. It's almost an expectation that this will happen whenever we come out with legislation to protect someone, or to incentivize economic development, or to enable some other lofty goal.

Remember the Empire Zone program? You know, the one that allowed companies to file paperwork to rename themselves, and take credit for 'hiring' new people and garnering them fantastic tax breaks and in some cases, tax refunds?  Or, they'd hire one employee and voila, be eligible for the special deals? There's some great (shameful?) information on how this program ran amok in this Citizens Budget Commission report.

Or how about the Tax Free NY program? That one hurts companies like the one I work for, which in one way or another has been around for some 80 years, and instead favors a different class of companies and their employees with ridiculous tax breaks?  Here's are a couple of posts I've done on this program; you can decide if you think it's fair, or if it offers any true public value.

The bottom line? Legislation created by well-meaning Democrats and Republicans we send to Albany are being abused, in many cases by donors to those same legislators. And, whether it's because their afraid of losing their campaign cash or because they're just not strong enough to walk back something that's gone awry, we're stuck with these programs.

And not only that, they continue to create new ones at every turn; a perfect case in point is the whole 'competition' for economic development dollars promoted annually by our Sonofa Gov Andrew Cuomo. We all know what happened with that program, right? Criminal convictions of key players in the program, a close compadre of the governor, and developers from Syracuse and Buffalo - so far. You can read about that gang, pre-convictions - here.

It's long past the time for putting these gimmicky programs to rest, and it's time we put fairness back into our tax programs.